Rant of the Month

Jul 23,2014

A couple of things happened in the last twenty-four hours that got me thinking I just might have something to type about. Most recently, during my morning run along the riverbank, an apparently homeless family just waking up under the bridge got up and stared at me as a I passed, calling out 'Guu moonin' a few times to make sure I heard them. Now, when I run in the morning, I'm using all the lung power I have to just keep up the speed; I don't have any to spare for conversation, much less to provide free Eikaiwa or other entertainment to anyone who thinks it's my duty to give it based on the shape of my face. I kept running, and when I reached the end of the pavement a few mintues later, turned back as I always do, somewhat dreading what further confrontation might be lurking under the bridge. One of the girls still under the bridge was now calling out to the other, who had made her way to the top of it: 'Hey! Hey! Look! It came back.'

Now, I understand that some people's lives are so incredibly dull that seeing someone whose face is a little bit different is a cue for blatant wackiness, but somehow I suspect that even homeless children, seeing a Japanese person whose face was scarred or deformed, would have the decency to at least acknowledge the person's humanity.

So as I continued running I recalled last night's session of reading out loud to my wife. The story I read began with Mexican family who had intended to travel to the US but something happened with their visa procedures and they ended up coming to Japan. (No, that didn't make any sense to me, either, but bear with me: it gets nuttier.) The first thing the Mexican couple did after greeting their Japanese hosts with a kiss on either cheek ('Mexican style') was lavish praise on the absolute superiority of Japanese society: 'Japan is the safest country in the world, everyone is so kind, there's never a thing to worry about. Nowhere else in the world is there a country so civilised. It's just like you said, all you have to do is ask someone in uniform and all your problems are solved.' (I'm translating from memory, but I think I captured all the important sentiments there.)

The first thing I asked my wife is, Why would a Mexican say that? 'Oh, it's just fiction,' she reminded me. Yes, but people reading this, while being constantly surrounded by jingoism in school and the media, will come out thinking this is the way it is. She said it couldn't be helped; I said she had a higher BTL than I do. She said I'd make the same excuse for America; I countered that my distaste for America was the reason I left it. I won't waste time or space here stroking the Japanese ego by ranting about why America sucks; that can be found just about anywhere.

So let me begin by recalling the video made by a local television station for a special segment on Tottori University's study-abroad program in Mexico. Although all the actual students to whom I spoke gave the experience an overwhelmingly positive review, what was broadcast on television consisted almost entirely of the negative--certain inconveniences, the food wasn't always spectacular, toilet paper has to be disposed of in the trash bin rather than flushed, etc.--plus a heavy dose of interview snippets of Mexican teachers praising the Japanese students.

Is it any wonder that just about everyone we meet has patriotic tapioca where their reasoning faculties should be?

Safest country in the world? Try Iceland or Denmark. I've had my bicycle stolen four times since I've come to Tottori, and been hit by motor vehicles twice and nearly so many more times simply because the drivers weren't looking where they were going. If, God forbid, I should ever become critically ill here, I'd probably be better off flying to Thailand for treatment. Contrary to what students are brainwashed to believe about the excellence of Japan's drinking water, in most major cities it's filled with chemicals, and if you happen to have been born a woman, rape and domestic violence are pretty pernicious dangers. So no, Japan is certainly not the safest country in the world.

Nowhere else a country more civilised? Really? How about any number of countries where people have the sense to leave work at a reasonable hour to spend time with their families (Australia, New Zealand), or where putting extra effort into one's appearance is accepted as more important than running to avoid being a single minute late to the office (Italy, Spain)? (Perhaps our standards of 'civilised' are different. When it was revealed to one relatively progressive man in an office where I once worked that Japan does not in fact have the longest working hours in the world--that dubious honour belongs to either to South Korea or Mexico, actually--his reaction was that the Japanese have to 'try harder.' So perhaps from such a perspective the mark of a superior society is one bereft in heart and soul, where the goal of an individual's life should be the enrichment of one's superiors.)

Well, my wife is correct; it can't be helped. This is the inevitable result of years of coercive schooling by which children are made property of the state almost from infancy, bombarded with restrictions, and forcibly stunted in their emotional and spiritual growth. (I first noticed this when I showed the elementary school children how to make paper snowflakes during my first year in Japan. The first graders were eager to experiment and develop all manner of their own patterns and designs, but by fourth grade they had lost this ability, and would do absolutely nothing until told exactly what to do and exactly how to do it. After fourteen years of indoctrination, people who could potentially have develped into complete human beings if left with a modicum of freedom, are suited to be nothing but human resources. If creativity and curiousity survive in any individual after a completing government schooling, it is a miracle.) Even the offical Japanese rendering of 'critical thinking' is a mistranslation that has caused everyone to think it has something to do with criticising things, just as substituting 'cool' for 'kakkoii' gives Japanese people the mistaken impression that 'cool' has something to do with a person's physical appearance.

In the midst of all these misconceptions, I heard the other day that a friend from India remarked on visiting Tottori that the place seems like it's dying--not only Tottori, but this society in general. A withering plant deprived of needed nutrients might be an apt metaphor. We can do all in our power to offer light and fertilizer, but if the plant has been deliberately bred to reject these things, the struggle is futile.

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